The memo stank of barrel-printing ink and bad news. Oh, it began with the usual hurrahs, our boys victorious and finally coming home, but it ordered me to banish sixteen patients from my care by week’s end. I didn’t have ten men who were safe to send home to their families. This could not stand, and I’d tell Mathy to her face.
Green-tinged gaslight in the stairwell gave way to the lobby’s white-gold aether lamps, and I suppressed a wince at the familiar prickle and whine of modern lighting. The clerk at reception waved me over, but I ignored the message slips in her hand.
“Have you seen Dr. Matheson?”
“Good evening, Dr. Singer. She left twenty minutes ago.” She nodded her head leftwards.
Matheson had sent her memo late to escape before the news spread. She wouldn’t be the one to send veterans home before they were ready. That responsibility was on me.
“You aren’t the only one to ask.” The clerk thrust messages into my hand. “They all left early. Department heads, board members … It’s a bad one this time, isn’t it?”
“Mandatory patient discharge.” My fingers barely grazed hers, but the old wound to her shoulder joint throbbed a dull red to my talent. My fingers itched to heal it. I drew away.
She curled message slips into tubes and slid them into labeled cubbies. “Well, it’s to make room for the soldiers coming home, isn’t it?”
It was. The war in Laneer was over, and as predicted, Laneer surrendered to Aeland’s might. A happy event, to be sure. But when I thought about the fifty thousand soldiers on their way home, the chance they shared my patient’s problems … I ignored the sick feeling in my gut, stuffing the messages in my coat pocket beside the crumpled memo. “What about Robin?”
“Haven’t seen her. The nurses are in a meeting.”
This damn memo, and no Robin to commiserate. “Thank you. Have a quiet evening.” I gave her a polite nod and headed for the exit, faltering as I pushed the heavy door open.
It’s perfectly safe out there. I knew it, but I still had to scan the trees when I stepped through the hospital doors. Their branches bent heavy with ripening apples, not the weight of enemy snipers.
Perfectly safe. Laneer’s everlasting summer and gunfire were an ocean away. I was home in Kingston, where carriage wheels and bicycle tires hissed along rain-dampened streets, the air crisp with a streak of winter. I patted my pockets, searching for cigarettes I didn’t carry anymore. Maybe Robin would let me have one. Solace knew I needed one, after my day.
Brass carriage bells, trilling bicycle bells, and shouting sounded, not far away and coming closer. A carriage careened around the corner. Cyclists scattered like startled fish. The driver hauled on the reins, putting his weight against the carriage brake. “Emergency!” the driver cried, stilling his agitated horses.
Cold pooled in my gut. We weren’t an emergency hospital. If they needed a surgeon, I’d have to take up the scalpels I hadn’t touched since I came home from the war.
The coach door banged open, and a broad-shouldered gentleman leapt out, bearing a sick man in his arms. The patient’s face rolled toward me, and my heart kicked against my chest. Not just sick; by the waxy look of his skin, this man was dying. He lifted his trembling hand to claw at my coat lapels.
I put my arms under the patient’s shoulders and knees. “I’m Dr. Singer, sir. I’ll take it from here.”
“I found him in the street.” Instead of letting go, the gentleman grasped my arms, and between us we made a carry chair. He nodded to me over the patient’s head. “I’m Tristan Hunter.”
He adjusted his grip on my sleeves and ran like we had to outpace a tin grenade. Where had he learned to move casualties like that?
The sick man groped for me again.
“Sir? Can you tell me your name?”
“Nick Elliot,” the sick man said. “Help me, Starred One. I am murdered.”
I stumbled. The gentleman glanced at me, wide-eyed.
“He’s raving.” My excuse was feeble.
We rushed past the crowd huddled around the lobby wireless, their faces pop-eyed and staring at us. A competence of nurses strode out of Audience Hall A. Robin—thank the Guardians—broke from their midst, following us to an empty treatment room. Mr. Hunter handled the turn and dump in the dark as competently as any medic I’d worked with in the war.
He stepped back to snap on the light. The harsh white glow of aether prickled over my scalp and blazed over Mr. Elliot’s pale face, the bruised hollows around his eyes deep violet.
Robin stretched a pair of rubber gloves over her hands, but I didn’t bother. She caught my overcoat as I shrugged it off, her hand already out for my bowler.
“Poison,” he gasped. “In the tea. Please, Starred One. Help me.”
Don’t say that out loud. I tore his vomit-stained shirt open. Abalone shell buttons plinked on the tile floor. I planted my bare hand on his chest and choked down a gasp.
Mr. Elliot’s aura was the green of new spring leaves. A stranger with a witch’s aura, dying on my table? This was a disaster.
Robin handed me a stethoscope. Mr. Elliot’s pulse tied a stone to my hope of saving him, his labored breathing an off-time rhythm shuddering in his skinny chest.
“Is there an intravenous kit left?”
Robin threw open supply drawers. “No.”
“Find a kit. Find two. Run.”
Robin dashed out of sight. I spread my fingers over the stranger’s chest. The deep scarlet light of his heart faltered. Gray particles gathered in his stomach and kidneys: dull, but with a feeling of metal. He had been poisoned, and not by bad food or filthy water. I couldn’t save this man without magic.
Tight muscles in my arms and legs quivered. I could save him. Then he would talk. Then I’d wind up in the asylum … or worse, my family would save me from the asylum.
Mr. Elliot dragged in a tattered breath. “I got too close. They needed the souls. The war—”
He gagged and rolled away from me, retching. I held him steady. “Don’t try to talk.”
He dragged in ragged breaths and kept talking. “Find my murderer, Sir Christopher.”
I froze. “I’m Dr. Singer.”
He groped for my arm. “Promise me.”
A crackling line of static rushed over me. Tendrils of green light shot from his fingers and twined up my arm. I fought his grip, but the vines held fast, stretching from his grasping fingers.
I lurched backward, trying to break free. He held on and toppled from the exam bed, landing on the tiles with a cry. The light-vines constricted, sinking under my skin.
Nick Elliot raised his head. He was on his last shreds of life, his grip on my arm trembling.
“Take it,” he said. “Please. Use it to save them.”
There was no time to ask who I was saving, or from what. The souls, he said. And he knew my real name.
“Please, Sir Christopher,” he panted. “The soldiers … they deserve the truth.”
The truth about what? The war? I wasn’t sure the soldiers in my ward could handle any more truth. I tightened my grip on his hand. “I will.”
Nick’s power wound around me, trying to connect with mine. He needed my help to do this. I stopped fighting the vines for one breath and reached out.
I hadn’t linked with anyone for years. I had thought I never would again. His agony shuddered through me, his desperation closed my throat, and his power filled me as he yielded every speck.
The treatment room faded as a vision took me. I stumbled on worn carpet patterned with pink roses, tripped on my way down the stairs. My insides felt shredded, and I lurched over tiny black and white tiles to a glass-fronted door. I had to get help. I had to live.
The light-vines faded and his body went limp. I was Nick Elliot no longer; his last urgent memory faded with his life. I felt for a pulse, for breath, but it was merely ceremony. He was dead.
Robin stood in the doorway clutching an IV kit. She dropped it on the counter and knelt next to me. “Are you hurt?”
Robin stared at me, raising her gloved hand to hover next to my temple, as if there was something there to see. Hot and cold raced over my skin. Pins and needles spread from my fingertips, crawling up my right arm. “Am I bleeding?”
“No.” But her brows were bunched together. “Are you sure you’re all right?”
“I’m all right,” I said. “Help me get him on the table.”
His power welled inside me. I had to check to make sure I wasn’t spilling light every time I moved. What had he done to me? I scrambled to my feet and tried to lift Nick Elliot’s body.
Robin stared over my shoulder. “Sir? What are you doing in here?”
Cold fear prickled down my back.
Mr. Hunter stood behind me, tucked into the corner where he’d seen and heard everything.
* * *
My hands turned to ice. He would tell Robin as soon as he worked past the denial. He’d tell everyone in hearing range a witch had worked a spell on me, that the witch had called me Starred One and worse, Sir Christopher. But how had I failed to notice him?
“Forgive me,” he said. “I didn’t want to be in the way. One never knows quite what to do in these situations.”
“I’m sorry you had to see that,” Robin said. “He was in a lot of pain. Would you like to take a moment in the hospital lobby? Or I can find an empty treatment room…”
Yes. Get him out of here.
“Thank you, I’m quite well.” He gave her a slight bow, his smile polite before he regarded me. “Doctor, do you need to sit down? You look shaken.”
Blast this man. What was his game? He’d seen everything, but he looked at me with polite concern. I stood up straighter. “I’m fine, thank you. I hate it when I can’t save them.”
Robin and I laid Nick Elliot on the table and straightened his limbs, closed his staring eyes.
Mr. Hunter stood at the foot of the examination table, hands behind his back. “He said he’d been murdered. Had he?”
“It’ll take a death examination to find out,” I said. “The police have to be notified, in any case.”
The cabinet on the left held sheets. I unfurled one over Nick Elliot’s body, draping him in white-laundered linen. “You said you found him in the street.”
Mr. Hunter tugged a corner of the sheet so it fell evenly. “At West Fourteenth and Wellston.”
“West Fourteenth? Wakefield Cross Hospital is closer.” Robin bent and picked up the buttons.
“He asked to come here.”
My heart thumped hard—once, twice. A witch had passed the best hospital in Kingston to come here. To come to me. I shuffled to the treatment room’s stone sink and turned on hot water. I wet a scarlet bar of soap and used the circling of one hand ringed around the other to calm down and think. Mr. Hunter had seen. He’d seen it all. And he hadn’t said a word.
“We need to report it,” I said.
“I’ll get him sent downstairs.” Robin had the beginnings of a medical file piled up on the counter. “You’ll handle the exam?”
The antiseptic scent of carbolic acid rose from my soap-slippery hands. “I’ll do it tomorrow.”
“We have the luncheon fundraiser tomorrow.”
“Guardians, save me from that waste of time.”
Mr. Hunter stood up a little straighter, frowning at my language. I dried my hands on a linen towel. “I’m sorry, sir, but I must attend this. If there’s nothing else I can do for you?”
“Actually…” Mr. Hunter took my Service coat and my second-best hat. He presented them as if he were my footman. I draped my coat over my left arm, caught the brim of my hat in my hand. Paper crinkled in the pocket—the damned memo.
“I’d like a private word. I won’t take much of your time.”
Here it was. Threats. Blackmail. Whatever he wanted for his silence.
“We can talk in my office.”
Copyright © 2018 by Chelsea Polk